Few of us were prepared when the world suddenly shut down in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we physically distanced ourselves from one another, rationed our toilet paper, and tried to squeeze the last drops of hand sanitizer out of an almost empty container, many of us made a silent promise to ourselves: Next time I’ll do better. Next time I’ll be better prepared. But, of course, it’s hard to be better prepared for whatever lies in store for us the next time if we don’t have any real sense of what that might be. And that’s why the real preparation doesn’t start with an expedition to the grocery store. Real preparation starts with an expedition into imagination. Unless we can imagine what might be coming, we have no way to guard against it.
There were many failures that contributed to the current pandemic. We have seen failures by the intelligence community, failures of international cooperation, and failures to heed advice from public health experts, to name just a few. But we’ve also seen failures of imagination – a failure to imagine how bad things might get. In thinking about the future course of the pandemic in its early days, who among us really imagined that we would still be battling surges and seeing rising case counts more than two years later?
Most of us aren’t in the kinds of positions of power and responsibility that could enable us to fix the systemic failures just mentioned, failures that seem out of our individual control. But the one failure that we can each do something about is our own failure of imagination. In this article, I want to explore the role that imagination can play in helping us to think about the future in an effort to come to a better understanding of the power of imagination. Moreover, as we’ll see, with the closing of the world that was brought on by the pandemic, there has been a new opportunity for the opening of imagination.
A Skeptical Challenge
Insofar as we have engaged in pandemic imaginings, these imaginings have mostly concerned our collective future. We all have been engaged in this enterprise together, trying to see the future that lies ahead of us. But before we can really understand how we can effectively leverage our collective imaginative capacities to learn about our societal future, it helps to first focus in on a different, and more personal kind of future-directed imagining, that is, the kind of imagining we engage in when thinking about our own individual futures.
Imagination plays a crucial role in decision-making (see, for example, Nanay 2016). We rely on imagination for decision-making all the time – whether it’s big decisions like what career to pursue or smaller decisions like where to go on vacation. Should I go to the mountains or to the beach? To make this determination, I might imagine myself first in one situation and then another. I imagine myself hiking in the cool, crisp mountain air, and then I imagine myself relaxing on the sand while reading a mystery thriller. By exploring these possible vacations in imagination, I can work through what each of them would be like, and that helps me to make my choice.
As natural as this way of making decisions might be, some philosophers have challenged the role of imagination in this context. Consider the process of decision-making in cases where the options that lie ahead are foreign from anything we have thus far experienced. When the future paths are dramatically different from anything we know about, skeptics about the power of imagination maintain that imagination is inadequate and unreliable. We thus have a skeptical challenge: In many cases, imagination cannot do what it needs to do in order to enable us to make rational decisions about our futures (Paul 2014).
Our earlier reflections on pandemic imaginings seems to back up this skeptical challenge. Remember how bad many of us were at imagining what the pandemic would be like? It was too alien from what we knew. So when our potential future paths are likewise alien, why think we would be any good at employing imagination to aid our decision-making?
Resisting the Challenge, Part I
While this skeptical challenge has bite, I think it should be resisted. To my mind, the skeptic fails to consider a very important fact about imagination, namely, that it is a skill (Kind 2020a). As I will suggest in this section, once we take this fact about imagination into account, we can see how the skeptical challenge goes astray.
When I’m trying to decide where to go on vacation, and I imagine myself at the mountains and on the beach, my imaginings are aided by a process I call imaginative scaffolding (Kind 2020b). Suppose I’m deciding between a week at a resort in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and a week at a resort in Cabo San Lucas. I haven’t been to either of these particular resorts before. But I have been to other resorts before, both in the mountains and at the beach, and so I can call upon those past experiences and use them to imagine the vacation possibilities under consideration. I scaffold out from the experiences that I’ve already had to ones that I haven’t.
How successful I’ll be at this imaginative act depends on several factors. First, it depends on the experiential resources that I have at hand. Though I’ve never been to Cabo San Lucas, perhaps there’s reason to believe that the resorts there are in many ways like a beach resort in Hawaii that I’ve previously visited. So the fact that I can draw on my previous experience of a Hawaiian vacation means that I’m in a better position to imagine the Cabo San Lucas vacation than I would be if I had never been to a beach resort before.
But having the experiential resources is not itself enough. The success of my imagining also depends on my ability to manipulate the experiential resources that I have at hand. Even though the resorts in Hawaii and Cabo San Lucas are both beach-based, for example, the resort in Cabo San Lucas will be different in all sorts of ways from the resort in Hawaii. Hawaii is an island, so it has an island economy, and this means that there are some important differences between a vacation in Hawaii and a vacation in Cabo San Lucas. The fact that Hawaii is in the United States also introduces some relevant differences between a vacation in Hawaii and a vacation in Cabo San Lucas. Hawaii uses US currency and most of its residents speak English as their native language – neither of which is true of Cabo San Lucas. So in order to scaffold out from the experiences that I’ve had to the ones that I haven’t, I’ll have to add and subtract from those previous experiences while also combining and merging them appropriating with other experiences. For example, though the beach resort I’ve previously visited is in the United States, I’ve vacationed before in international locations, even if never on the beach, and never in Mexico. Likewise, though I’ve never vacationed in Mexico before, I have been there for a work trip. In imagination, then, I draw from my Hawaiian vacation experiences, my non-US vacation experiences, and my non-vacation Mexico experiences, and by making the suitable additions, subtractions, and combinations, I come to something that better approximates what it would be like to vacation at the Cabo San Lucas resort.
As should be clear, doing all of these manipulations takes imaginative effort. It can be hard work. Some of us are better at this work than others. But that’s not at all surprising given that imagination is a skill. Just as people vary in how good they are at other skilled activities, whether it’s solving crossword puzzles or playing the violin, people will vary at how good they are at imagination. Also important, however, is that just as someone can get better at solving crossword puzzles or at playing the violin by engaging in appropriate forms of practice, so too we can get better at imagination by way of practice (Kind 2022). As children, we practice at imagination quite a lot, even if a lot of this practice is not deliberate. We stretch our imagination whenever we read picture books or play games of pretend with our siblings and friends. When we become adults, the demands on our time leave less opportunity for the kinds of activities that stretch our imagination, but such activities would be available to us were we to seek them out – whether by way of guided visualization exercises on a meditation app or by way of improv classes at a local acting studio.
In short, it’s possible to do considerably more by way of imaginative scaffolding than the skeptic realizes, especially for a skilled imaginer. We are thus in a better position to rely on imagination in making decisions than the skeptic allows. But is this enough to overturn the skeptical challenge? After all, even if we can do better in imagination than the skeptic thinks, our imaginings might still fall short. Can we really imaginatively predict exactly what the two vacation spots will be like? And isn’t the problem even worse for bigger decision contexts, as when we’re deciding between two different career paths or two different cities in which to settle down?
In response to these concerns, I think it’s important that we be careful not to set unreasonable demands on what imagination needs to do in order for us to make rational decisions about the future. The challenge arose, recall, from the sense that some future paths are so alien that they are essentially closed off to us from our current perspectives. To rebut this challenge, then, we don’t need to show that we can know exactly what it’s like to take one path rather than another. That’s unlikely to be possible in any decision-making context, even in familiar cases. As a general matter, we don’t think we have full and infallible knowledge of what a future path will be like in order to make a rational decision – a diner who has eaten lots of vegetarian chili and bean burritos before doesn’t have to know exactly what this particular bowl of vegetarian chili will taste like for them to be rational in choosing it over the bean burrito. A college student who has taken several history and literature classes doesn’t have to know exactly what History 241 will be like in order for them to be rational in choosing it over Literature 241. As a general matter, we don’t have to have perfect and complete knowledge of the options in order to be able for our choices between them to be rational ones.
Resisting the Challenge, Part II
Recognition that imagination is a skill thus goes a long way towards enabling us to respond to the skeptic’s challenge about the power of imagination in enabling us to make rational decisions about the future. But there’s another important point that’s also worth making. When we put imagination to use in decision-making contexts, we are not simply trying to predict the future. We are also trying to shape it. The skeptic operates with an overly limited conception of what we’re doing with our imaginings, and we can further rebut the skeptical challenge by adopting a more expansive conception about how imagination operates in these contexts.
In some recent work, philosopher Magdalena Balcerak Jackson offers us a useful framework for thinking more expansively about the role of imagination in decision-making (Balcerak Jackson 2020). Central to this framework is a distinction between two different models of imagination that she calls the Fortune Teller Model and the Architect Model.
When we’re thinking of imagination on the Fortune Teller Model, we see it as aiming to represent a future path. As Balcerak Jackson puts it, “We turn on our internal crystal ball, and we see the future.” This use of imagination for thinking about the future corresponds to a similar use of imagination for thinking about present states of affairs. When someone presents you with a nicely wrapped birthday present, you might try to imagine what’s in the box before you start to untie the bow. Using imagination to think about what the box holds is a lot like using imagination to think about what the future holds. In both cases, you’re aiming to discover something unknown. And in doing so, you’re trying to get things right – you’re trying to discern the truth.
It’s natural to adopt the Fortune Teller Model when we’re thinking about the role of imagination in decision making. Adopting this model also allows us to draw a nice analogy between imagination and perception. Just as perception allows us to see the present world as it actually is, imagination helps us to see the future world as it possibly could be. In many cases of decision-making, this is indeed exactly how we’re putting imagination to use.
Sometimes, however, we are employing imagination in our decision-making in a different way. When we’re thinking of imagination on the Architect Model instead of the Fortune Teller Model, we see it as aiming to design a future path. The goal here is not one of prediction, but of creation. As Balcerak Jackson puts it, “We put an initial picture of the possible future … on the drafting table, and we use our control over the imagination to modify and to work on this picture.” Here too we can see correspondence to similar uses of imagination in thinking about present states of affairs. Children playing games of pretend use their acts of imaginings to design the pretend world. They shape the environment around them and turn this playground structure into a pirate ship and that sandbox into a desert island. Here, the children aren’t trying to discover something unknown. They are not trying to discern the truth but rather to make new truths. Likewise, when we approach decision-making via imagination on the Architect Model rather than the Fortune Teller Model, we too are engaged in acts of design rather than acts of discernment.
In questioning the effectiveness of imagination in decision-making, the skeptic assumes that we are using our imagination according to the fortune teller model. As we saw in the last section, we can be better fortune tellers than the skeptic allows; this gave us one way to respond to the skeptical challenge. But as the discussion of this section suggests, we sometimes are using our imagination in an entirely different way – and this gives us a second way to respond to the skeptical challenge. When we imaginatively approach our future not as a fortune teller but as an architect, we’re not aiming just to see the future as it possibly could be but to shape the future into one of these possibilities. One doesn’t just see some possible future me in imagination; rather one works to bring about that future me.
How might this work? In fact, I think we use something like the architect model in lots of different situations, even if we don’t always recognize that this is what we’re doing. To give just one example, consider the workshops that are often held on college campuses that help members of the community to be better allies to those who are victims of discrimination. At this kind of workshop, one typically engages in a lot of role play. One might be presented with a situation in which one person acts inappropriately toward another – perhaps committing a microaggression, or perhaps doing something worse. As we engage in the role play, those of us attending the workshop have to imagine how we would respond. Importantly, however, we are not aiming to foresee our actual response, where this is taken to be some pre-existing fact. Rather, we imagine how we might respond in a certain set situation so that we can become the kind of person who would respond that way.
Here I’m reminded of something a student of mine once said when I was asking about when/how they use imagination: “I imagine the future and imagine myself in it – it helps me color in the future that is otherwise blank.” In saying this, the student’s imagining wasn’t in the service of predicting the future for herself – or at least, not just in the service of predicting the future for herself – but in working to construct that future for herself.
The skeptical challenge about the role of imagination in decision making arises in large part from worries about the ability of imagination to make accurate predictions about the future. But insofar as much of our reliance on imagination in decision making is design-oriented rather than prediction-oriented, the force of the skeptical challenge dissipates.
Putting Imagination to Use
As the discussion of the previous section has shown, understanding these different future-oriented uses of imagination enables us to answer the skeptic. But achieving this understanding can do much more. In particular, once we have a better conception of what imagination can do, we are in a better position to harness its power.
Let’s return to the kinds of future-oriented imaginings with which we began, namely, imaginings about the pandemic. Over these last two years, finding some way to imagine ourselves through to the other side of the pandemic has been a matter of special urgency. As we noted, however, our imaginings initially didn’t serve us very well in this regard. It’s hard for imagination to work in a vacuum of information. We need a launching point, something to scaffold out from, and when the pandemic first began, most of us didn’t have the kinds of experiential resources that we needed in order to do a very good job at imaginative scaffolding.
As the pandemic has progressed, and as we’ve encountered situation after situation that were entirely unprecedented in contemporary times, we’ve been stretched in uncomfortable ways, and at times perhaps almost to the breaking point. But there’s been at least one positive consequence – one silver lining. For our imaginations too have been stretched. Our experience with the pandemic gives our imaginations more material with which to work. Our imaginations have been newly opened. With this stretching, with this opening of imagination, we are better positioned to think constructively about the future we might face.
In doing so, should we be fortune tellers or architects? To my mind, the answer is: both. We would be well-served if these two models were to work in conjunction with one another. We need to see the possible futures, so we can choose which of these possible futures that we want to work to bring about. And the better that we become at picturing these possible futures clearly in our mind’s eye, the more we can start designing the way they might go.
As we have learned from the imaginative failures of the current pandemic, and from the consequences of those failures, the work of imagination not as a luxury but as an imperative. So perhaps what’s most important to remember is that the work of imagination is, after all, work. And this is true whether we’re being fortune tellers or architects, or some combination of the two. As noted earlier, imagination is a skill, and like all skills, one gets better at it via practice. If we start working to develop that skill now – if we use our new experiential resources and put them into service in developing our imaginative muscles – then we will be better positioned going forward not only to see in imagination the kinds of future problems we might face, but also to see in imagination the ways in which such problems might be able to be solved.
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Balcerak Jackson, Magdalena. 2020. Designing Our Futures. September 16. https://junkyardofthemind.com/blog/2020/9/14/designing-our-futures.
Kind, Amy. 2022. “Learning to Imagine.” British Journal of Aesthetics 62: 33-48. https://doi.org/10.1093/aesthj/ayab037.
Kind, Amy. 2020a. “The Skill of Imagination.” In The Routledge Handbook of Skill and Expertise, edited by Ellen Fridland and Carlotta Pavese, 335-346. Abingdon: Routledge.
Kind, Amy. 2020b. “What Imagination Teaches.” In Becoming Someone New: Essays on Transformative Experience, Choice, and Change, edited by Enoch Lambert and John Schwenkler, 133-146. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nanay, Bence. 2016. “The Role of Imagination in Decision-making.” Mind and Language 31 (1): 127-143.
Paul, L.A. 2014. Transformative Experience. New York: Oxford University Press.